HARD ROCK ZOMBIES
1985, 97 mins. 8 secs.
Directed by Krishna Shah
Starring E.J. Curse, Geno Andrews, Sam Mann, Mick McMains, Jennifer Coe, Ted Wells
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US RA HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Color, 1988, 85 mins. 18 secs. / 85m. 3 secs.
Directed by Dimitri Logothetis
Starring Nicholas Celozzi, Tom Reilly, Donna Denton, Toni Basil, Hope Marie Carlton, Tamara Hyler, Steven Brian Smith, Ty Miller
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Code Red (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD), 88 Films (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD), Retrofilm (DVD) (Germany R2 PAL) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
Any horror fans who frequented the VHS racks in the second half of the '80s must have a soft spot for the bizarre flood of MTV-style rock horror films that got breathless coverage in Fangoria but barely played on any movie screens. Trick or Treat was easily the highest profile of the bunch, but a little exploring could also having you spending a weekend with titles like Rocktober Blood, Rock 'n' Roll Nightmare, Blood Roses, or Terror on Tour. Two of those rock-heavy films have been collected in a 2022 double-disc Blu-ray set from Vinegar Syndrome, delivering a double feature that could actually cause major cognitive issues if you aren't careful.
First up is one of the weirdest films ever released by Cannon Films, Hard Rock Zombies, which ran on a couple of screens in an edited R-rated version before hitting unrated VHS from Vestron. Evidently shot without a finished script and largely improvised along the way, this was a major change of pace for Indian director Krishna Shah after the prestige film The River Niger and his bizarre feature debut, Rivals. After a bout of homicidal skinny dipping, we sort of follow the bizarre journey of rock band Holy Moses led by Jessie (Curse) who are warned by uncomfortably young wannabe groupie Cassie (Coe) to tone it down for their next gig in a small town, Grand Guignol. In the process they work on a new song based on some kind of resurrection incantation, of course, which isn't half as weird as the town itself where Adolph Hitler is apparently alive and well with followers including midgets and his werewolf wife. Though the whole purpose of the gig is to catch the eye of a talent agent passing through town, the band ends up being targeted by the townspeople in an ongoing chain of violence that ends up in a zombie rampage and a concert of the undead.
Obviously played for laughs complete with a sequence involving zombies being herded by people wearing Hollywood actor placards and a stop-motion guy eating himself, Hard Rock Zombies seems to be aiming for the midnight movie crowd but turned out like nothing else on earth. The music is about as soft as hard rock gets with enough songs to qualify this as a musical, but you also get a fair amount of nudity, some highly unconvincing gore effects, and a story that zigzags all over the place so much you have no idea where you'll be two minutes down the road. It's definitely not a film for everyone to put it mildly, but if you want a party movie that will leave jaws stuck to the floor, here you go.
Circulated in a handful of bootleg editions over the years, Hard Rock Zombies makes its legit disc debut here with a scan from the best surviving material, a U.S. theatrical print. Of course that means this isn't exactly the most dazzling presentation in the Vinegar Syndrome canon with all the usual limitations that entails including fairly clogged blacks and iffy detail, but that's as good as it gets for this one. Since the unrated material only exists on tape, those bits have been slugged in from an SD source but look okay for what they are. Mainly it's shocking how innocuous the unrated footage is, especially with multiple bits involving a very goofy severed head that could've slipped by in a PG-rated movie. Some other bits are also slugged in where there was just element damage, such as reel change points where a line of dialogue might have gotten snipped. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track is also okay for what it is, with optional English SDH subtitles.
The epic "Never Say Die" (66m9s) collects a slew of actors from the film including Curse, Sam Mann, Geno Andrews, Mick McMains, Ted Wells, Richard Vidan, and David O'Hara. It's crammed with wild stories involving one cast member holding the sole print for ransom, a lucky phone call from Gene Simmons, the curse word they couldn't say on set, the confusion over what the film was about, the various music careers swirling around at the time, the rather large personalities on set, sex in a broom closet, and other odds and ends. Then the poetically named "Popcorn Farts and Low Budget Cheese" (21m21s) with special effects artists Chris Biggs and Everett Burrell covers early gigs for Roger Corman, the joy of killing fictional people, projects with John Carl Buechler, and the resourcefulness required on this film with very limited funds. In "From Bit Player to Band Leader" (10m46s), actress Susette Boggs explains how a quick minor part ended up turning into a memorable bit for her at a point in her career when she had just gotten to L.A. from New York. Finally in "The Bible of Holy Moses" (10m49s), author Lucy Hall enthuses about the film and her lifelong adoration of it as well as her dedication to rock movies.
Next up on disc two is Slaughterhouse Rock, here making its second appearance on Blu-ray. Released just as the '80s horror boom was dying rapidly, it may not make a ton of sense but you have to give it credit for trying every trick in the book. Adopting the smoky, stylized look of music videos for much of its running time, the film plays like a college/prison gumbo offilms like Demons, Trick or Treat, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Witchboard, with enough gore and bare skin to make audiences happy andenough stupidity to make critics pull out their knives. Needless to say, if you're an '80s horror junkie, this former VHS fixture delivers the junky goods. Plagued for over a week by nightmares in which he's chained up and mutilated by a clawed demon, college student Alex (Celozzi) is told by his buddies that his dreams must be connected to a macabre incident at nearby Alcatraz in which four members of a rock band called Body Bag were horribly murdered just before their tour boat was set to take them back home. The situation gets worse when he starts having waking visions of monster hands bursting through the walls of a restaurant, worms crawling out of his cheek, and a beast bursting into his bedroom to rip open his chest. His older brother, party boy Richard (CHiPS' Reilly), is concerned when Alex's dreams start manifesting in reality, first in scratches on his neck and then in more overt ways, and after a bit of research by his girlfriend (Denton) and their friends, it turns out there's a nasty demon lurking in Alcatraz that was temporarily raised by those pesky dead rockers. Now Alex appears to be harboring the secret to what really went down, so they all head out to Alcatraz from the night where they encounter spooky rock queen Sammy Mitchell (pop singer and dancer Toni "Mickey" Basil, sporting some crazy hats), her mangled band mates, and the fanged demon itself.
Like the other film here, Slaughterhouse Rock isn't quite the metal and monsters fiesta you'd expect though it does feature some kitschy dead rockers with gored-up facial and throat wounds. That said, you do get a really fun electronic score by Devo (yes, that Devo) and a very energetic turn by Basil, who stops the show just before the one-hour mark with an interpretive music video dance sequence that must be seen to be believed. Most of the actors seem like they just saw the script five seconds before the cameras started rolling, but Reilly and comic relief Steven Brian Smith bring some breezy charisma to their roles anyway. More oddly, in addition to some of the obligatory female topless shots, the film features an insane amount of shirtless beefcake and bro bonding that puts this somewhere between David DeCoteau territory and famous coded closeted horror films like A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge and The Lost Boys.
Picked up for U.S. distribution by Taurus (who also picked up Two Evil Eyes) for a very marginal theatrical run, Slaughterhouse Rock made its way to VHS from Sony Video almost immediately and caught a lot of eyeballs with its striking cover art. After that it disappeared from the United States entirely for decades, finally resurfacing in 2016 on Blu-ray from Code Red with a fresh scan touted as being from the original negative running 85m3s. For the record, this is the standard theatrical cut and not the reported earlier edit that popped up on Dutch VHS, which briefly extended two demon shots and featured a random bit of extra dialogue (running about 20 seconds longer); that cut also turned up on one of the German DVDs, albeit dubbed in German only. Image quality is obviously a major leap over the past transfers with radically improved black levels (it really looks like it's taking place at night now) and borderline psychedelic colors at times, befitting the whole music video aesthetic (with lots of neon in a few scenes, too). Some of the super dark scenes in the second half are still an issue because of how they were shot with very low lighting, resulting in a pretty nasty, gritty appearance that's part of the original source. The DTS-HD MA English stereo track sounds fine given there isn't anything too dynamic going on apart from that Devo score. Speaking of which, Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh (who's since gone on to a notable film scoring career with films like 21 Jump Street and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) is on hand for two extras, a quick video intro (with the label's talking banana) and a 9m48s interview about how Basil suggested Devo for the project after they worked on her Mickey album, what it was like doing his first film score (not counting Human Highway, built around preexisting Devo music),and the collaborative nature of the band's composing songs. Also on hand is cinematographer Nicholas Josef von Sternberg for a 13m15s interview in which he briefly talks about having fun on this film before heading on to other topics like why he didn't follow his famous father into directing, the unique approach he took to shooting Dolemite, his disastrous experience on Another You, and the Canadian financial chicanery that made him retire.
The Vinegar Syndrome disc features a fresh scan from negative and actually represents the extended cut of the film, clocking in several seconds longer with a smattering of extra blood. Visually it looks similar during daylight scenes and varies during the darker ones, sometimes sharper and brighter and at other looking about the same or darker. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 stereo track sounds excellent with a bit more heft and channel separation than before, with English SDH subtitles provided. The extras here are more comprehensive as well starting with a new von Sternberg interview, "Low-Key Horror" (11m12s), about some of the more innovative experiments he enjoyed on the film including shooting on roller skates at Alcatraz. Then in "The Girl That Lives" (19m26s), actress Tammy Hyler explains how she got into acting after moving to L.A. at 18 and enjoyed a rare opportunity to play a final girl, as well as the prep involved in getting ready to make a horror movie and the friendships she kept from the experience. Celozzi appears next in "Wearing the Right Clothes" (15m55s) chatting about his surprise at the film's eventual cult following, the process that led to him getting hired on this film when it was being compared to Elm Street, his relief at not having to wear those crazy contacts, the huge amount of lines he had to learn, and the execution of a pivotal fire scene. Finally in "Lunch Break with Claws" (19m13s), actor Al Fleming touches on the multiple duties he performed on the film (including a bit of pitching in on makeup) and how they came up with the conception of the monsters.
SLAUGHTERHOUSE ROCK: Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray)
SLAUGHTERHOUSE ROCK: Code Red (Blu-ray)
Reviewed on April 3, 2021